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IMPACT Plus - Five Ways to Promote Student Engagement in a Statistics Course

By Karen Gaines posted 03-19-2021 16:18:37

Posted on behalf of:

Student engagement…we all want it, we all talk about it, we know it’s an essential part of learning and student success, but what exactly is it?


When I was asked to write a post about student engagement in a statistics classroom, I had all sorts of ideas of what can be done, but I took a step back and thought: what exactly is student engagement in a classroom? So…I’m going to get you engaged in this post about engagement. :)

How would you define or describe student engagement in the classroom? What comes to mind? [Pause here and come up with an example or two before reading on.]**


**In all honesty, I had a really hard time coming up with a concrete definition of what engagement is prior to writing this post.


Raising hands when asked a question or asking a question? Perhaps. What about students feeling a sense of connection or community to those in the classroom? Maybe. Persistently working on a challenging problem? All of these are a few (of many!) examples of how students can engage in a course. In fact, I purposely chose these examples because they map on to the three dimensions of student engagement described in one theoretical framework (Fredricks et al., 2004):

  • Behavioral engagement refers to students’ direct (observable) actions in class, such as adhering to the rules and norms (e.g., completing work on time, raising hands during class, attending class) and participating (in a verbal or nonverbal way) during class (e.g., paying attention, taking notes, asking questions, verbally contributing to discussions).
  • Emotional engagement refers to students’ attitudes toward their peers, teachers, and overall learning, which influences students’ feelings of connectedness with the classroom.
  • Cognitive engagement refers to students’ investment in their learning and ability to use self-regulation strategies (e.g., staying motivated, welcoming the opportunity to be challenged, engaging in deep-learning, being persistent). This is usually unobservable but can be seen in various activities in class.

Fredricks and colleagues suggest that we view engagement as a multifaceted construct and not focus on just one part. In fact, they are “dynamically interrelated within the individual; they are not isolated processes.” (Fredricks et al., 2004, p. 61).


So, how can we design our courses with these types of engagement in mind? I’m going to propose five ways to promote student engagement in your classroom.


  1. Redefine participation. One thing you shouldn’t put much stock into to gauge student engagement is oral participation in class (e.g., those that talk during class). In a study examining the relationship between the two, it was concluded that “oral participation is not a good indicator of engagement” (Frymier & Houser, 2016, p. 99). While oral participation may be a form of behavioral engagement, it tends to be preferred in Western education and isn’t aligned well with the conceptualizations of engagement (Lee, 2009). Consider other forms of participation beyond verbal (especially if you grade participation), such as adding clickers to the classroom (or use of ABCD voting card, if don’t have clickers (no technology option); use of plickers (another technology option)), Zoom polls (if teaching remote synchronous), or one-minute papers/assignments before class or at beginning or end of class.


  1. Develop your teacher presence. Teacher presence in a classroom is a powerful tool for student engagement that should be cultivated. One study found that student engagement can be increased by teachers’ nonverbal immediacy, that is, nonverbal communicative behaviors such as being approachable, reducing psychological (or physical) distance, being present, and expressing emotion (Frymier & Houser, 2016). There are lots of ways to be present in the learning space. For example, you can talk about the weather or an upcoming event. If you are funny person, add humor to the classroom. If you like to tell personal stories (e.g., about your family, something that just happened, or related to the content), students will be able to connect with you on a different level. While it may be easier to create these teacher presence moments in an in-person or remote (synchronous) class, you can also create them in fully online (asynchronous) courses by answering email promptly, chiming in on the discussion board daily, or creating a video for announcements in a fully online (asynchronous) course**. Your actions will promote engagement (in all three dimensions) so long as they are authentic and genuine and students see that you care about their learning progress.


**For example, last spring in my fully online introduction to biostatistics course, I created a video of myself dancing into the frame prior to providing the weekly announcements. I’m typically a goofy person and so this allowed students to see a glimpse of my goofiness prior to receiving course information. I embedded this video within my written announcements so that students could obtain the necessary information in the format of their choosing. When I don’t create videos, I always add something about how I’m feeling (e.g., I’m happy it’s spring!) or what I’m doing (e.g., I’m making scotcheroos this weekend) at the start of my announcements so students can connect with me beyond the material and hopefully see that I’m an approachable person. But, being true to who you are is important when creating teacher presence.


  1. Build a sense of community. Building a sense of community promotes a safe and inclusive learning environment where all are welcome to the discussion (i.e., emotional engagement). This is especially true for large classes and for remote (synchronous) or fully online (asynchronous) classes where students may feel isolated and disconnected from those in the class. One way that you can build a sense of community in your classroom is to have a “random” question of the week at the start of class or in a Q&A (or discussion board) forum online. [Don’t forget to answer the question as well.] Some of my favorite questions include:
  • What do you do to de-stress? [It could be something you do daily, or every so often. Would love to hear how people take the stress out of their lives (especially in this day and age of COVID).]
  • What is your favorite restaurant? [Bonus: a link to the restaurant so we can all salivate at the menu.]
  • When you were young (say between 0-14), what job did you want to have when you "grew up"? 

If you are in-person, consider breaking the class up into smaller groups (3-5 students) to work on an activity, a group quiz, or a question and pose a connection question prior to them diving into the work to help them identify roles within the group. For example, you could say “the student whose hometown is the farthest away will be the notetaker for the group”. When students are emotionally engaged and feel tied to the learning environment, they may be more invested to do the work.


  1. Provide more opportunities for active learning during class. Allowing students to be active participants in their learning during class (rather than passive ones, which occurs during lectures) promotes student engagement (Collaço, C. M. (2017)). By the very nature of active learning techniques, students are forced to engage with their learning by exploring, investigating, and problem-solving with the content, their peers, and you (the teacher). This tip is aligned with the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education (GAISE) College Report (2016) that recommends we foster active learning in the introductory statistics course. Even if you do have lecture days, consider adding in opportunities for students to actively engage with the content by having, what I call, “pause moments” (e.g., ask 2-3 easy questions (only has one answer) to challenging questions (has multiple answers or are forced to make connections) about the content). Here are a couple of other ideas for how to actively engage students in class (some from general education and others specific to statistics):
    1. The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies (The Cult of Pedagogy)
    2. Active Learning Strategies (UC Berkeley)
    3. GAISE College Report (2016) provides some good suggestions and activities for instructors on how to foster active learning in the classroom.
    4. Provide opportunities via activities for students to explore the topic before you formally present it. For example, have students use web applets (e.g., StatKey, Rossman/Chance Applet Collection) to simulate a sampling distribution before you formally get into all of the nuances and language about it. The key to allowing students to explore is to create guided instructions and questions to minimize the difficulties of the content and help students make connections and have “lightbulb” moments. Some activities that may be of interest include some created for the Statistics: Unlocking the Power of Data textbook (free! and can be modified to fit your particular course) and those found in the Workshop Statistics textbook or Introduction to Statistical Investigations textbook.

Having students work actively together on the more challenging material in class can promote student engagement, so long as there is opportunity for immediate feedback and good scaffolding of the problem-solving process.


  1. Use authentic (and frequent) assessments. Students will be engaged when assessments are seen as relevant, authentic, and interesting (Taylor & Parsons, 2011). Many of these suggestions for using assessment of and for learning is also highlighted in the GAISE College Report (2016). This includes Asking Good Questions (a blog by Allan Rossman that covers just that), analyzing real data, immersing students in the investigative process of problem-solving and decision-making, and creating opportunities to connect statistics to real-world problems (e.g., Projects). Additionally, having more frequent assessments (e.g., weekly quizzes) can help students monitor their own learning and improve where needed. Frequent, low-stakes assessments also can reduce anxiety around statistics. For example, consider adding readiness quizzes prior to class to ensure students have adequately prepared for class and provides the students and instructor formative feedback.


Engagement in the classroom, by all parties (students and teachers**), creates a better learning experience for all.


**When I was initially thinking about this blog post, I was thinking of ways we can get students to do something and was pleasantly surprised after reading up on the topic that the finger also needed to point the other way: what can we as teachers do to promote student engagement (e.g., cultivate a sense of belonging in the classroom). Hope my reflection helps you see that it’s two-sides to the coin when it comes to student engagement: it’s both them and us.




Collaço, C. M. (2017). Increasing student engagement in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice17(4), 40-47.


Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research74(1), 59-109.


Frymier, A. B., & Houser, M. L. (2016). The role of student participation in oral engagement. Communication Education65, 83-104. doi: 10.1080/03634523.2015.1066019


GAISE College Report ASA Revision Committee (2016), “Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education College Report,” available at


Lee, G. (2009). Speaking up: Six Korean students’ oral participation in class discussions in US graduate seminars. English for Specific Purposes, 28, 142–156. doi:10.1016/j.esp.2009.01.007


Taylor, L. & Parsons, J. (2011). Improving Student Engagement. Current Issues in Education, 14(1). Retrieved from



1 comment


03-24-2021 17:59:13

Thanks for this blog post Karen!

Engagement can be challenging because it requires you to "think outside of the box", but you have given me some great nuggets to consider.

I also like your reference to the simulation activity for sampling distributions. I have just posted mine in the Learning Library.